Gardening on a non-profit budget...
August 14, 2014 9:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm now in charge of a non-profit greenhouse that utilizes the square foot gardening method. How can I closely replicate Mel's Mix without breaking the bank? (And other greenhouse gardening advice happily accepted within!)

Amazingly, I've lucked in to a wonderful job at a non-profit that employs mentally and physically disabled individuals. I am the greenhouse manager: two large greenhouses and a giant outdoor plot are now mine to take care of! Currently I'm working on a grant that stipulates all harvest will be distributed free of charge to our 50+ shelter employees and a local food bank.

I'm doing my best to master square foot gardening and thus, am making Mel's Mix for our 6 raised beds. The issue I'm having is locally sourcing (and beyond that, even sourcing from Lowe's, etc) coco coir, vermiculite, and compost. We do have composters getting started but that won't be ready for a bit to I'm going to need to make my own mix of 5 different composts, as Mel recommends. Amazon, thus far, has proven to be the cheapest (free shipping!) -- our local hardware store can only order us half the ingredients and it's more expensive than Amazon and I'd like to not deal with our local MFA if I can help it. I'm in a rural area with a population of less than 2,000 so obviously, my resources are limited.

Does anyone have suggestions on where to acquire coco coir (or peat moss, if I must) in bulk at a reasonable price? And what about vermiculite? I've checked every online gardening store (shipping cost is insane) and local nursery with no luck. A call to local farmers for something we could use in our compost mix was fruitless as well.

Barring suggestions on that quandary, does anyone have suggestions for a soil mixture that works as well as Mel's Mix?

(And sidenote: any and all greenhouse gardening tips are greatly appreciated as well! We're in Zone 5a.)
posted by youandiandaflame to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For cheap coir, look for your local "indoor gardening" or "growing supplies" store. They have a specific kind of customer that goes through a LOT of coir.
posted by rockindata at 9:19 AM on August 14, 2014

Having done a lot of gardening over several decades based loosely on the square foot concept I'd like to recommend that you avoid the vermiculite. It breaks apart and loses it value quickly. Can you give us some info about the native soil you're starting with? Is it sandy, clay,or loamy? Generally the addition of plenty of composted or decomposing plant material, without any additional minerals (vermiculite or perlite) improves garden soils.

Keep an eye on your local Craigslist free ads for free mulch sources.
posted by X4ster at 10:00 AM on August 14, 2014

Response by poster: As another note, what I've been paying might be helpful. I can fill a wheelbarrow for about $38 -- $4 for coco coir, $9.23 for vermiculite, and $25.64 for compost (combined bat guano, chicken compost, and earthworm castings).

X4ster: Native soil is awful. Clay and rocks so thick that piercing the ground with a shovel even after a hard rain is difficult, thus our raised beds in the greenhouse.
posted by youandiandaflame at 10:03 AM on August 14, 2014

Zone 5A! I help run a small farm in Plymouth, WI.

If you have time before you need to use it, I've had GREAT luck with building raised beds in the Spring and Summer that will be used the following Spring.

After I've cleared the ground and built the frames, I dig out maybe 12-24" of the stony red clay. I position the frame and then fill the whole thing with 6 month - 1 year old horse manure to within 2-3" of the surface. You can get horse manure everywhere - most of the time people are glad to let you have it - especially if you tell them about your program.

I don't add soil yet. I let that sit until spring and then I rake it flat and add 2-3" of seedless compost. My experience has been that horse manure has a lot of seeds, but with the layer of compost on top they aren't sprouting. It has the consistency of peat moss and is local. Every year I add 4-6 new beds this way - we have 12 out back right now that are doing great: pretty weed-free and really rich. Almost too rich; if we don't pack them with vegetables and squash, the thinly planted plants go crazy and almost produce too much.

I know this doesn't address Mel's mix specifically, but thought I'd let you know what we do in the same climate with our program. You may want to think of the manure base (just please - not fresh manure) with a top layer of soil/compost to save some cash. Like I wrote: We've had really good luck with this. Our garden in the front is worked up this way and in a 15 foot square we have:
  • 8 tomato plants
  • 64 green bean bushes
  • 4 kinds of basil
  • 3 eggplants
  • 20 Sweet pea vines
  • 1 patty pan squash
  • About 75 carrots
  • Beets wherever there is a space for them - about 40 of 'em
  • Lettuce wherever it fits - maybe 20 looseleaf heads
  • As many marigold seeds as would come up. We plant them everywhere as we set in plants, seeds, and cuttings in the Spring.

    So it works really well as a cheaper alternative to complicated and expensive mixes.

  • posted by Tchad at 10:44 AM on August 14, 2014

    Response by poster: Tchad: My goodness, that's the yield I'm looking for! SFG says that only certain amounts of plants can be added to a square foot section so I'm wondering how you fit all this and more importantly, I'm guessing it must be growing just fine?

    In a 16 cu ft bed, I've got (for example):

    -- 16 cucumbers
    -- nasturtium
    -- dill
    -- 48 radishes

    Obviously, what you've got going is what I need to achieve so if you wouldn't mind letting me know how well everything grows together, I'd super appreciated it!
    posted by youandiandaflame at 10:51 AM on August 14, 2014

    I gardened in west coast adobe soil for a number of years, ugly stuff. When it's dry it is brick like and when it's wet it glues to the shovel and you can't shake it off. Fortunately it wasn't rocky. Sounds like you've got a tough job.

    The guano, chicken compost (manure?) and worm castings is a great mixture for plant nutrients but it you'll still need lots of just ordinary composted plant materials to improve the porosity of the clay. Vermiculite may be an option for you. Here's a link to a SQF vermiculite discussion.

    In our raised beds I use a modified version of what's sometimes called trench composting. It's simply burying plant material under a layer of soil and allowing it to be broken down by soil bacteria and worms. The top 4-6 inches of soil is native soil with well composted organic stuff and below that is roughly mixed soil and leaves, hay or straw and other plant material. By the time the first crop of plants is harvested the lower layer has been broken down into pretty good soil. In succession planting I continue to layer in more plant material.
    posted by X4ster at 11:02 AM on August 14, 2014

    Tchad has well written good advice. My brother & SIL have one small greenhouse and a second BIG greenhouse. They make effective use of battery powered hose end irrigation timers for watering. I use them too, in conjunction with micro-spray emitters. Depending on the mixture of plants in a bed you can mix and match the emitters to get the right discharge volume of water for the plants. You might want to consider timers if they fit into your budget.
    posted by X4ster at 11:25 AM on August 14, 2014

    I've been doing it at the farm just going on observation and what I remember form my rural childhood, so I can't speak to specific methods or rules, just: "Hm. Is this gonna work? I think I remember..." kinda stuff.

    Our layout is pretty ideal - the front garden I listed is in all-day full sun and the only planning I do is when I lay out the peas and tomatoes in the Spring. The peas, being the highest, are growing on a tall fence on the North side of it. The tomatoes are staked along the West and East sides. Everything else gets nestled in the middle. This seems to work for us. The garden gets full sun all Summer except for the first and last 45 minutes of light during the day.

    If I can find some pics I'll post them. Everything seems to be growing together just fine. I haven't noticed any issues. The beets are a little grumpy and misshapen from being so tight, but neither our borscht nor our bellies will care this Fall.

    The basil isn't doing great, but I think that is because of the squash. I think the poor little guys are just not getting enough sun. We like basil more than squash, so the vines get chopped as soon as they come too close.

    I have to say that next year anything growing on a vine that isn't a pea is going out back where it can meander. That stupid patty pan squash has to be cut back a lot to keep it in check. In the raised beds on the back of the property it can ramble a bit more and I wouldn't care.

    I'm pretty hands-off with weeding. I detest it and generally won't do it. That is why we started planting things so tight. I don't mind spending a whole day on prep in the Fall and Spring to really pack as many nutrients as possible in if it means I can forgo weeding (that's where the marigolds come in). I think a master gardener would take issue with the way we planted the beans - those 64 green bean bushes (from seed) are growing in a 4 foot square area, but everything seems to be producing just fine. The Spring was blah this year, so everything looks good even if it is all a little late. We JUST got our first ripe tomato last week. In my experience it is about 2-3 weeks late, but I push things a bit.

    The beds I mention "out back" are 3x5 beds prepped like I described. We use those as ancillary/experimental/rooting/cutting beds. They are super hands-off. Once this Summer I did some light weeding, but that's it. This year, we've been sticking things out there right and left because something got to a lot of our freshly planted vegetable seeds and we didn't notice until it was too late. So they are getting used for other decorative/forestry stuff this year.

    Bed #1: 24 catalpa trees on their 2nd year
    Bed #2: 14 peony rootings, phlox, 30-35 iris from god knows where that we rescued, 5 lilac cuttings, mint cuttings (4 kinds), and 2 rose slips.
    Bed #3: Pumpkin, horseradish, and first-year columbine seedlings (used as ground cover, these will be dug and put in the woodsy treeline next Spring. This bed would have had 4 pumpkins, 1 horseradish, and 2 butternut squash, but a squirrel or chipmunk got to almost everything right after I planted the seeds and it got repurposed for the season.
    Bed #4: About 30 sumac seedlings getting ready for the treeline next year. Earlier we had 6 butternut seeds planted.
    Bed#5: Maybe 40-45 hibiscus plants with lavender and thyme scrunched in wherever a seed would come up. This was supposed to be a butternut/cucumber bed.
    Bed# 6: 150 ground cover rootings.
    Beds #7-12 just got installed this year, so they are sitting and waiting until next spring.

    In general, those 3x5 beds support 6 vines like butternut and pumpkin and something right in the center - either a couple of tomatoes or another couple of vines.

    I think one thing I'd mention is that anything that vines like squash and cucumber I plant right at the edge of the frame and let it grow out & down of the frame itself. That way it won't take up as much space in the garden and you can pack it tighter. This may not be ideal if you are under glass and have to use the walkway in a greenhouse. We don't pay much attention to paths in the garden - I am a tall guy and can reach over for 80% of the harvesting - there are just a few stones down the center of it for the hard to reach plants in the center.

    Out back, things can do pretty much what they want. You may not have that luxury of space+laziness+lack of aesthetics.
    posted by Tchad at 12:04 PM on August 14, 2014

    Many people use coir for reptile terrariums. Personally, I've gone from getting mine from Amazon to getting it from Petco, because it's less expensive from Petco (by a couple dollars/brick, last time I bought it). Maybe look into pet supply places to try to get a cheap coir source? I've found that items marketed as pet supplies are generally less expensive than the same items marketed as gardening supplies, though it's a case-by-case kind of thing.

    Also, be careful with the vermiculite -- I don't use it personally, because I've read that it can aggravate breathing issues.
    posted by rue72 at 2:02 PM on August 14, 2014

    I was recently at a soup kitchen which has a gardening program. They said that Home Depot donated a lot of the supplies and labor to build and plant their raised beds. So maybe ask them or Lowe's for some donations, if there's one within reasonable distance of you?
    posted by charmcityblues at 10:40 PM on August 14, 2014

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